I’ve been watching music biopics this week. Three of them. They’re stories of individual musicians and each film is flawed yet satisfying in its depiction of some part of a musician’s life and struggle. The films are recent and all available on DVD—or you may be able to find them on a streaming service.
I Saw the Light (2015, 123 minutes)
This is the weakest of the three films in its portrayal of the life and career of the great Hank Williams, who died at the age of 29 after a short but brilliant career beset by addiction to alcohol and drugs. The film is worth seeing for Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal and performances of Hank Williams’ songs. He seems to become Williams physically and his voice is close to the tone and style of the original. (I listened to some original Hank Williams after watching the film and Hiddleston’s voice is more silky smooth than Williams’ voice.) Even so, Hiddleston never gets beneath the surface of what made Williams tick. And neither does the film.
Elizabeth Olsen plays his first wife Audrey, who had delusions of being a country singer herself despite no talent. Cherry Jones has some great scenes as Hank’s mother, Lillie.
My objection to the approach taken by the director Marc Abraham is that it doesn’t show any of Williams’ early musical inspirations in black gospel music or anything about Rufus Payne, the black street musician who taught him to play the guitar. The play Lost Highway staged by American Blues Theater in 2015 and 2016 did a better job of showing Williams’ life and influences and included Rufus “Tee-tot” Payne as one of the characters important in Williams’ life.
So I’m still waiting for a good film about the great Hank Williams. The Last Ride (2012) directed by Harry Thomason was even less satisfying. Henry Thomas plays the Hank Williams character who hires a local kid to drive his own blue Cadillac to his last gigs in late December 1952. That was indeed the last ride; Williams died in the car on New Year’s Day 1953.
And I don’t even want to watch Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) again. I remember it as dreadful. Directed by Gene Nelson, it features George Hamilton lip-synching (badly) as Williams.
Miles Ahead (2015, 100 minutes)
Another film about a great musician, Miles Ahead also takes a segment of that life. The film portrays trumpeter Miles Davis during the five-year stretch that he took off from playing or composing. Don Cheadle is the best part of this film. He wrote, directed and plays Davis, very believably. Cheadle bears some slight resemblance to Davis (as Hiddleston does to Williams) so that helps. The late 1970s scenes are intercut with earlier scenes when Davis was performing with his band in the top jazz clubs around the world and celebrated as a brilliant performer. His first wife, Frances Taylor, is beautifully played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, a dancer who gives up her career for Davis.
The plot suggests some events that happened or might have happened in Davis’ life and uses the plot device of a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to write a profile of Davis. (Echoes of End of the Tour, about a reporter’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, among other films.) There’s also a storyline about Davis trying to get back the session tapes he believes he owns from his recording company.
Some famous and talented musicians play members of Davis’ band. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark Jr. and Esperanza Spalding add a lot to the musical performance scenes. Cheadle did learn to play the trumpet for the film but the music we hear is usually the trumpet work of contemporary jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold who recorded over Cheadle’s playing. The rest of the trumpet work is that of Miles Davis himself, pulled from old recordings.
Some of the plot devices—like fist fights and a car chase punctuated with shooting—just seem silly and don’t add to the film’s quality.
After I watched Miles Ahead, I got out my Miles CDs and listened to Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, my two personal jazz favorites.
Born to be Blue (2016, 97 minutes)
Another film about a jazz trumpeter—Chet Baker—features a really fine performance by Ethan Hawke as the troubled musician. I think this is the best of the three music films I’m reviewing here.
The story, directed by Robert Budreau, is a “reimagining” of the musician’s life in mid-career. Baker, a white West Coast musician who played the cool West Coast style jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, wanted to play at Birdland in New York and be accepted by the black jazz musicians of the bebop and cool genre. (At one point, Miles Davis tells him “Come back after you’ve done some livin’.”) He does eventually play at Birdland but the story is primarily about his battle with heroin and recovery from a brutal attack (possibly by a drug dealer) that severely cut his lips, knocked out his front teeth and ruined his embouchure. He wasn’t able to play the trumpet comfortably for months.
Like Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, Hawke learned to play the trumpet for his role—so he could look like he knew how to play the trumpet. The music he plays was recorded by another musician—Kevin Turcotte. Baker also often sang in concert and on his albums—in a wispy, reedy soft voice—and Hawke does the vocals himself in a couple of scenes.
Carmen Ejogo is terrific as Jane, sort of an amalgam of the various women in Baker’s live over the years. There’s a real chemistry between them and the interracial relationship works. There’s a film within a film story going on but the main plotline is about Baker’s recovery from the attack, and his efforts to stay off heroin and thus out of jail.
Ultimately (and here’s a spoiler), he decides he loves heroin and the way it allows him to play too much to give it up. At one point, he explains to his manager (Callum Rennie) why. “It gives me confidence,” he explains. “Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note.”
Baker spent most of the last decades of his life in Europe as a musician and heroin addict. He died at 58 in Amsterdam in 1988.
Chicago has two don’t-miss exhibits this summer that are a little off the beaten path and I’m going to share my reviews with you. Actually we have dozens of amazing exhibits of art, architecture, history and science at any given moment. Keeping up with Chicago’s museums could be a full-time occupation. But I don’t want you to miss these.
Aaron Siskind: Abstractions is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago thru August 14. The Art Institute has a large collection of Siskind’s work and this exhibit shows 100 of them, many shot in the 1940s and ’50s.
His work is so painterly that you would think at first glance that they are paintings or prints. Siskind’s practice was to focus in closely on elements of everyday materials such as pavement, broken windows and seaweed, creating abstractions from concrete reality.
My review also describes the conversation about Siskind by three of his former students, which added their personal insights to the exhibit.
With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St. This exhibit presents 74 original illustrations from Puck Magazine, the first successful humor magazine, published in the 1870s thru 1918.
Read my detailed review here.
The exhibit is beautifully organized around half a dozen themes about politics, society and human nature. You can see the framed original drawings plus the magazines where they actually were published. There’s also an exhibit describing the early chromolithographic printing process that was used to print color covers and centerspreads in the magazines.
The exhibit gives you the opportunity to also appreciate the Driehaus Museum itself, a magnificent 19th century mansion built for the family of Chicago banker Samuel Nickerson. The exhibit runs until January 2017.
And the bridge, as promised
Last weekend I watched the 2000 film, High Fidelity, again, for the umpteenth time. It’s a great film and I especially love it for two reasons: It’s shot in Chicago and I mean really filmed in Chicago, not pretend-filmed as many TV shows are. (They’ll film a scene under the L tracks and one on the Michigan Avenue bridge and think they’ve captured Chicago.)
Oh, and the other reason I love it is that Bruce Springsteen makes a cameo appearance. The film is about Rob (John Cusack), who owns a vinyl record store in Wicker Park, before it got gentrified. Read my Letterboxd recap.
One of my favorite scenes is Rob, philosophizing about his life and loves, on the Kinzie Street bridge. Here’s a great photo from the website itsfilmedthere.com. They get the photo credit too.
The last year had many exciting and interesting moments for me, but the last month has been challenging. I spent most of it mourning about and planning how to recover from the demise of Gapers Block, the website for which I’ve written for almost three years. The site is now “on hiatus.” Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of the 12-year-old website, posted a letter to readers explaining the change. And this is how the site looks now.
Many articles, comments and personal memories have come in to praise Gapers Block but no one has stepped in with the offer of the needed money to update the infrastructure and pay a full-time editor/publisher at least a pittance of a salary. So the site will live on as an archive, with all the existing content live, but nothing new. I couldn’t resist adding my own personal thoughts to the site, which I did late on New Year’s Eve, while waiting for the #ChicagoRising star to rise. (I can’t bring myself to call it “Chi-Town.” No real Chicagoan would use that term.)
GB staff members had known about this for several weeks and after we got over our initial distress, some of us began planning a new website to cover the Gapers Block arts and culture content. The result will be our new website, Third Coast Review, which is online now in an unofficial or “beta” way. We expect it to be official in a week or 10 days once we add more content.
What else was new and important in 2015?
On another shorter trip, I spent time in New York and was lucky to get a ticket to see the smash Broadway hiphopera (as one of my fellow theater critics calls it), Hamilton, about our first treasury secretary. I wrote about that here and probably will keep writing about it. I intended to see it again later in the year but by then tickets were really impossible to get without paying a couple of months’ salary. And now Hamilton is coming to Chicago in September and will be here (at the dreadful Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street, renamed after yet another bank), so I will be able to see it a few more times.
In the meantime, I’m finally reading the insightful biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show about our “ten-dollar founding father.” Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating, meticulously detailed and readable biography. I just wish it wasn’t 800 pages long.
The Phantom Collective, the pub theater group formed by my friend June Skinner Sawyers, staged several interesting literary events in 2015, including Black Dogs and Melancholy, a reading of Samuel Johnson writings. The most recent pub event was Beowulf & Grendel, which combined Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, with Grendel, one of Beowulf’s antagonists (dramatized in John Gardner’s 1971 novel,Grendel, in which that character tells his side of the story).
Architecture: We love our buildings. The Chicago Architecture Biennial was a series of exhibits and events from October through today. The most comprehensive was the takeover of the Chicago Cultural Center by about 80 exhibits on four floors by firms and designers that asked questions about and predicted the future of architecture. I particularly liked the architectonic window treatments on the Michigan Avenue facade of the building by Norman Kelley. He clad each window in white vinyl cutouts representing Chicago window styles, mullions and dressings. The biennial as a whole was less than impressive but it was an excellent start and a learning experience for the next biennial in 2017.
Getting ready for Springsteen
Yes, I have the hardly-waits already for the January 19 concert at the United Center featuring my favorite rocker, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And for the concert February 21 in Louisville, an excuse to visit with my friends Jeannie and John. There will be more. Springsteen is touring on the re-release of his 1980 album, The River, in the form of a large boxed set titled The Ties That Bind. No, I haven’t bought it yet.
The year in review? Not yet.
I usually begin the new year with a list of my favorite events in pop culture for the previous year. I may still do that. For now, WordPress has created my year in review:
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,700 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.
December is always a busy month but this one is busier than usual for me because I’m working on an exciting new venture. I’ll tell you about it in a few weeks. For now, I want to give you my theater and movie favorites for the month.
Fallen Angels at Remy Bumppo Theatre
This 1923 Noel Coward play is smart and funny, very funny, and slickly staged on Remy Bumppo’s space on the second floor at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The play and performance are delightful, partly because Coward does an interesting gender switch, unusual for the 1920s, with three outstanding female roles. My Gapers Block review tells all about it. Angels runs until January 10.
Ibsen’s Ghosts at Mary Arrchie Theatre
This very fine staging of the Ibsen play is a bit meta-theatrical and regularly breaks that famous fourth wall to interact with the audience. It’s hard for the audience not to feel that they’re interacting with the performers in this tiny space on second floor at Angel Island. (This is Mary Arrchie’s final season so do try to see one of their shows this year.) Ibsen’s Ghosts runs through December 20. My review begins this way:
“Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts takes the great Norwegian playwright’s scandalous 1881 play, shakes it up and spits it out in a witty contemporary form. And then punches you in the gut with its ending.”
Never the Sinner at Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph
Every Chicagoan knows the story of the thrill murder of young Bobby Franks by two University of Chicago students, Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb. Victory Gardens retells the crime, its aftermath and the Leopold-Loeb trial in John Logan’s 1986 script, written while he was a Northwestern University student. (Logan is known for his scripts for Hauptmann and Red, but has since become more famous as a screenwriter.) The two actors who play the criminals give excellent performances and veteran Chicago actor Keith Kupferer plays their attorney, Clarence Darrow, who saved them from execution. Never the Sinner closed this week. Here’s my review.
Agamemnon at Court Theatre
I liked last year’s Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre, but this year’s segment in the trilogy is a little flat and disappointing. The rhythm and performances in general are not as riveting. The actors performing as the chorus, however, are excellent, but they take up too much stage time and detract from the central plot. Agamemnon has now closed.
Some quick movie reviews
Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s Greek satire (his adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata) designed to send a strong message about Chicago’s gun culture and gang warfare. It succeeds in dramatizing the Chicago murder crisis — more dead bodies than the deaths of special forces in Iraq. I found the two-hour film hugely entertaining, funny and wise — but messy and incoherent. It’s wildly uneven. I loved the Greek references and the dialogue in rhyming couplets. Although I liked it and will see it again, I could only gave it three stars out of five on my Letterboxd review. Chi-Raq has received some good and bad reviews, but see if for yourself. Unless you can’t handle vulgarity. Here’s the famous trailer.
Phoenix is a 98-minute film released in 2014 by German director Christian Petzold, starring Nina Hoss (the same pair responsible for the outstanding film Barbara). In Phoenix, Hoss stars as a woman disfigured in a Nazi concentration camp; she undergoes plastic surgery but looks quite different than her original self. When she finds her husband, he doesn’t recognize her but decides she looks enough like his dead wife that she can help him carry out a fraud scheme. The Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low,” is used hauntingly throughout the film and provides a stunningly perfect surprise ending. Phoenix is streaming on many services.
Inside Out, a Pixar film, is said to be suitable for children and it’s certainly not unsuitable, but it is very much a nuanced film that adults will like too. The story, briefly, is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s head and heart suffer from all the pangs and pains you can think of, missing her friends, her old house and her hockey team. The emotions that fight it out are embodied as Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust and are voiced by a fine set of actors.
My little grandsons were mesmerized by this 100-minute film (of course, they will watch anything on a screen, as their mother says) but my son and I thought everything but the basic story probably slipped by them. Still, it’s a good family film with beautiful animation.
Suffragette, a film about the fight for women’s voting rights in early 20th century England, was rather a disappointment. Too much attention paid to the individual angst suffered by the Carrie Mulligan character and others; not enough devoted to the suffrage question. (Or maybe I wanted to see a documentary.) Mulligan’s performance is good and Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as the chemist-activist. Meryl Streep does a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, overshadowed by her huge hat.
This will be a quick post before I leave for nine days of travel. When I return, I’ll have plenty of notes for my next essay. For now, here are a few things you won’t want to miss.
George Orwell’s 1984 at Steppenw0lf Theatre
This is a production of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which basically means high-school-age youngsters. This is a heady play, very thought-provoking and extremely well done. As my review headline says, Steppenwolf recreates the dystopian past and strongly suggests dystopia still threatens us. My grandson James and I reviewed it and we both loved it. He has read the book and so was eager to see how it played out on stage. Here’s our review. The play is targeted at school groups so the weekend performance schedule is brief. I strongly encourage you to see it before it closes November 20.
Wim Wenders retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center
You can see some of the great films by this German master at the Siskel Film Center. The retrospective opened earlier this month but there are still some great films in store in the next few weeks, such as Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films of all time), Paris, Texas, and Until the End of the World. Here’s my preview of the retrospective.
The Siskel gallery is also showing a nice exhibit of film posters titled Wenders and the New German Cinema.
Stagestruck City exhibit at the Newberry Library
The Newberry has created a marvelous exhibit from its plentiful archives of Chicago theater history. The exhibit tells the story of Chicago theater from before the 1871 fire and brings it to the opening of the Goodman Theatre in the 1920s. I described the exhibit here. Fascinating and scholarly, not flashy and animated, the exhibit runs through December 31. Don’t miss the Newberry bookstore while you’re there; it’s one of our better bookstores, and deserves our appreciation in this era of the demise of real bookstores.
Fourth of July may be my favorite holiday. Parades and fireworks! What could be better. And there’s nothing like a small town Fourth of July. I loved the Fourth when we lived in small college towns and this year I spent the holiday in a medium-sized city in North Carolina. Greensboro is something over a quarter million people but they still have a July Fourth parade down main street. Greene Street, actually—named for Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War general who forced the British troops to leave the Carolinas. The decisive battle was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, near what is now Greensboro.
Since July 3 was a First Friday, the galleries and artisan shops on Elm Street were open and we walked around and looked at many creative endeavors. One of the places we visited was Elsewhere, an experimental venue of art, music and salvaged art (or junk, if you wish).
The Saturday parade featured a few bands, motorcycles and classic cars, fire engines, Uncle Sam on stilts and lots of politicians. Costumed paraders walked along the route tossing candy to the crowd and handing out small flags. My grandsons loved the candy and the fire engines. There was a block party and street festival downtown on both July 3 and 4.
Saturday night the Fourth we were invited to a skybox at the stadium to watch the Greensboro Grasshoppers play the Hickory Crawdads. (The Hoppers are a Class A team in the South Atlantic League, and a farm team of the Miami Marlins.) I won’t report the score to avoid embarrassing the Hoppers. The kids were delighted when the team mascot, Guilford Grasshopper, visited our skybox. He took pictures with everyone and gave me a hug. The evening ended with an excellent fireworks display, one of many around town that night.
Silent movies: Chaplin and Keaton
One quiet afternoon the 7-year-old and I went to a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film, The Circus, at the aptly named Geeksboro Coffee Cinema. The coffee house caters to gaming geeks and the downstairs cinema shows weekly films. They also have Lawn Chair Movie Nights outside on weekends.
Meyer and I and about 20 other film geeks saw Chaplin’s silent film, in which the owner of a traveling circus hires the Little Tramp because he’s accidentally funny. There are all kinds of wonderful sight gags, like a pickpocket sequence, the Tramp locked in a cage with a lion and performing a high wire act beset by five monkeys.
The film ends as the circus pulls up stakes and leaves town. The Little Tramp walks off across the field in a tracking shot framed by an iris lens.
Meyer, who just finished first grade and is a great reader, could read all the title cards. He sat on the edge of his seat through most of the 71-minute film. What fun to take a child to such an entertaining old classic and discover it with him!
Here’s the lion cage clip from The Circus.
My film group discussed two Buster Keaton films last night, so I had a chance to watch two more silent films, both of them available for streaming. It was a chance to compare the talents of Chaplin and Keaton and I was surprised to discover that I found Keaton more subtle and interesting. The two Keaton films (both of which are often on best-film lists) are The General (1926) and Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which Keaton is a film projectionist who also cleans up the cinema after the show. He’s in love with a pretty girl and longs to be a detective. He carries around a pocketsize manual, How to Be a Detective. In one scene, Keaton appears to walk onto the screen and become part of the film. (The film runs 45 minutes.)
I think The General (78 minutes) is the better of the two films. The film (adapted from a book titled The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger) is set in the South during the Civil War and Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer in love with Annabelle Lee. He wants to enlist, but is rejected, and ends up being a daring hero as the engineer of the Confederate train (titled General) that helps prevent the Northern Army’s supply trains from advancing into the South. The film has lots of amazing footage that was carried out in real time, including the train chase and a scene where a bridge collapses and one train falls into the gorge below. It was a very expensive film to produce and Keaton’s career suffered as a result.
Keaton is always calm, serious and practical about the situation he’s in, even while he’s performing amazing physical feats as he keeps the General running, finding wood, chopping it and tossing it into the firebox. He doesn’t mug for the camera or overact as most silent film stars (including Chaplin) did. Keaton’s deadpan expression earned him the nickname The Great Stone Face.
In the last 15 minutes of the film, however, it was pretty horrifying to realize that I was cheering for Johnnie Gray and the South, especially when the Southern troops appeared carrying the Confederate battle flag.
You can watch The General in full online, probably because Keaton let the copyright expire and it became public domain.
Here’s a classic Keaton scene from his 1920 short film, The Scarecrow, in which dining is an efficiency exercise.
One more movie: Love & Mercy
This Brian Wilson biopic is an excellent film that shows Wilson at two different times of his life, played by two different actors. Paul Dano is Wilson as a young man, frontman for the Beach Boys and orchestrator of Pet Sounds. The older Wilson, ~30 years later and suffering from serious emotional problems, is played by John Cusack. The two times of his life are shown seamlessly, with the early scenes paving the way for his later decline. The older Wilson was in such bad shape (“Lonely. Scared. Frightened,” he writes on a card he hands to a young woman he has just met) that he allows himself to be totally controlled by the venal Dr. Eugene Landy, vigorously played by Paul Giamatti.
The best scenes, to my mind, are those where Dano as Wilson is directing the development of Pet Sounds with the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. He walks around the studio, perfecting the sound of each instrument, and adding sound effects. (The fact that the Beach Boys themselves were not the backing musicians caused a serious rift in the band.)
Love & Mercy runs two hours and is showing now at theaters in Chicago and Evanston.
Is it my imagination or is the arts world slowing down a little, in preparation for the summer? Maybe it’s my own lethargy but I’ve seen fewer plays recently. However, I have some excellent recommendations for you, in case you’re looking for something to do this weekend.
ATC: The Project(s)
American Theater Company’s The Project(s) is a sad and celebratory docudrama about public housing in Chicago. Writer/director P.J. Paparelli interviewed more than 100 past and present residents of Chicago public housing as well as scholars and public officials. The cast and the performance are outstanding and although the story does not end happily, it illustrates how residents in the CHA projects built communities for themselves. The 2.5 hour play (two intermissions) has been extended to June 21. Read my review.
It’s important to note that Paparelli, 40-year-old artistic director and inspiration behind many of ATC’s great productions, was killed in a car accident in Scotland last week. It’s a huge loss for Chicago theater.
Timeline Theatre creates a little bit of London and adds a backstory in Mosul, Iraq, in its new play Inana by Michele Lowe. The story, set in February 2003, is about a museum curator who wants to protect the art and culture of his institution from the looming U.S. invasion. Inana is a 3000-year-old statue of the goddess of love and war; the statue was damaged in an earlier attack. As I said in my review, Inana reminds us that sometimes Americans are the barbarians at the gates. The 90-minute play runs through July 26.
AstonRep: Les Liaisons Dangereuses
This play was adapted from an 18th century French novel that displayed the decadence and arrogance of the aristocracy just before the 1789 Revolution. AstonRep made a gutsy move in taking it on and for the most part, it’s a decent production in the smaller space at Raven Theater. However, the director for some reason decided to set it in 1917 Russia, before that revolution. On the surface, that could add an interesting political twist to the production, except the execution wasn’t carried out very well. It’s still 18th century France in costuming and setting with a few Russian touches. Here’s my review, which notes the memorable 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons starring John Malkovich, from the same literary source. The AstonRep show runs until June 21.
One lovely film: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, 124 minutes)
Clouds is an interesting, complex and beautifully filmed story about art, aging and celebrity. Olivier Assayas directs this film, which stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Here’s my mini-review on Letterboxd. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography of the Swiss Alps is incredibly beautiful. I gave it four stars out of five. It’s in theaters now.
Kafkaesque comedy by Martin Scorcese: After Hours (1985, 97 minutes)
After Hours is 12 nightmare hours in the life of Paul, a word-processor in 1980s New York. Paul’s interest in getting acquainted with a pretty girl in Soho turns into a nightlong quest to just get home. His $20 bill blows out a taxi window, then he can’t take the subway because the fare increased an hour ago. He’s seduced by women, taken for a burglar, chased through the streets by a mob, and encased in a paper-mache sculpture. Is it Kafkaesque? Yes and it’s hilariously funny. It has a film noir quality too. It’s available on DVD.
The hardest working musician….
As I write this, I’m listening to and half watching a June 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert, London Calling: Live in Hyde Park in London. It’s relevant here (but when isn’t Springsteen relevant?) because his music celebrates and mourns for the working class (and he’s the hardest working musician I know). When Bruce comes out on stage in the afternoon in bright sunlight, he’s wearing a light gray-green shirt with jeans and motorcycle boots. By the time he’s singing “Night” (“you work 9 to 5 and somehow you survive until the night”), the third song on the setlist, his shirt is dark with sweat all around his arms and shoulders.
Three songs later, he’s singing “Johnny 99” (a guy who loses his job and gets in bad trouble), and now his shirt is half dark and half light and his hair is soaked with sweat. (If you’ve never seen a Springsteen concert, I have to tell you that he doesn’t just stand in front of a microphone and sing. He’s all over the stage, down on the platform in front of the crowd in the pit. Sometimes he does a backbend off the microphone and at least once he jumps up on the piano to dance. And by the ninth song, “Youngstown,” a labor anthem, the shirt is fully soaked and dark with sweat and it’s dusk at Hyde Park.
But he’s only one-third through the concert, which goes on for hours more. The DVD is almost three hours but he performed for much longer. You can get a feeling for the flow of the concert and the madness of a Springsteen crowd from this trailer. (The guy who joins him near the end for “No Surrender” is Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem.)
First of all, two music documentaries, The Wrecking Crew and Muscle Shoals, both about the stories behind the music you see on stage or hear on a recording. And both great movies. (But then, you know I love rock docs.)
The Wrecking Crew, 2015, 100 minutes
The Wrecking Crew, directed by Denny Tedesco, is the glorious story of the session musicians who backed up many of the hits you love from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (even though you might have come to love that music only recently). The group of 20 or so musicians played in varying combinations behind the hits recorded by the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Mamas and the Papas, the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Monkees and many more. They made Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound sound like a wall of sound.
The group dubbed The Wrecking Crew played on all these hits: “Be My Baby,” “California Girls,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Mrs. Robinson;” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’“ “Up, Up and Away;” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Six years in a row in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Grammy for Record of the Year went to Wrecking Crew member recordings.
Some of the musicians, like Glen Campbell, went on to perform in their own names and become famous. But most were talented musicians you never heard of, such as drummer Hall Blaine, tenor player Plas Johnson (you hear his saxophone on the theme song from The Pink Panther); guitarist Barney Kessel; pianist Don Randi; and electric bass player Carol Kaye.
And the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, father of the director and the inspiration for the film. Tedesco senior was a fabulous musician and the film shows him in many stages of his life, playing many different kinds of music. Seeing how he earned his living (a very good living) as an almost-anonymous but essential musician, inspired his son to record the story of the Wrecking Crew, the name they gave themselves after people said they were wrecking the music business.
It was great to see Carol Kaye, known as one of the greatest bass players in the world at the time, in interviews and performance, both then and now. She said a lot of women were playing in jazz and music clubs in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Sometimes she would play many gigs in one day. And she proves she still rocks in the solos she plays in the film.
The Wrecking Crew was a Los Angeles-based group. Up until then, the music business was considered to be based in New York in the iconic Brill Building. But the Wrecking Crew pulled the business west.
The film is made up of music clips from the time and interviews with musicians then and now, plus interviews with figures such as the late Dick Clark, Frank Zappa, Cher, Nancy Sinatra and Leon Russell.
The Wrecking Crew was actually finished in 2008 and shown on festival circuits. But it couldn’t be shown commercially until Tedesco raised a pile of money to pay for licensing 100 hit songs used in the film. He finally succeeded with a Kickstarter campaign in which 4,245 backers pledged $313,157.
The film is running at least through next week at Landmark Century Centre. If you’re a music lover get to the theater now because it may not run much longer. There were a lot of musicians in the theater the day I saw it. I could tell by the jokes they laughed at.
Muscle Shoals, 2013, 110 minutes
What is Muscle Shoals? It’s just a little village on the Alabama border. But so much great music came out of it. No one can exactly explain why. Jimmy Cliff said, “At certain points in time on this planet, the are places where there’s a field of energy. At this time, there was Muscle Shoals.” Muscle Shoals is a 2013 documentary about FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
There was a certain Muscle Shoals sound. It was its own kind of R&B, different than Detroit, different than Memphis. U2’s Bono gives the river the credit. There’s the Mersey sound in Liverpool, then there’s the Mississippi and the Delta blues. Here it’s the Tennessee River. Bono thinks it must be that the sound comes out of the mud. But there was also something about the sound of the room that made it magical. (Dave Grohl says the same thing about the room they recorded in at Sound City, in his documentary of the same name.)
Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier describes the sound as a “funky, soulful, propulsive kind of groove.” Some of the musicians who recorded there were Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys and Steve Winwood.
Rick Hall was the founder of FAME Studios who overcame the poverty of the area in the 1970s to establish the recording studio with a house band known as the Swampers. It was the Muscle Shoals rhythm section—guitar, bass guitar, keyboard and drums. In the heart of Alabama during the Jim Crow era, Hall established Muscle Shoals as an integrated musical operation with no color distinctions between black and white musicians.
It’s an inspiring musical story and like The Wrecking Crew, features interviews with musicians as well as a chance to hear the music they made.
The film Muscle Shoals is available on DVD and it’s streaming on Netflix.
And two other films of interest
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (99 minutes) is a film that has gotten some buzz as “an Iranian vampire western.” Well, okay, it is about a vampire but she only attacks men who mistreat women. It’s really a very fine film, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, and set in a fictional Iranian ghost town known as Bad City. (It’s shot in Bakersfield, Calif.) The cast is Iranian-American actors speaking Farsi. There’s a sweet love story about two lonely people, one of whom happens to be the hijab-wearing vampire, beautifully played by Sheila Vand. Her boyfriend is played by Arash Marandi, on whom I developed a crush by the end of the film. The cinematography is high-contrast black-and-white, mostly shot at night in industrial-type settings. The story is engrossing and I will probably watch it again. If I was giving stars, I’d give it 4 out of 5.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (70 minutes) is a 3D film that should be seen in 3D. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and I strongly recommend you don’t watch it that way. I missed it when it was showing in 3D at the Gene Siskel Center and I’m sorry I did. I watched it last night on my lovely big TV screen. Don’t repeat my mistake. The film is experimental and kind of nonlinear and just looks strange in 2D. But at least it’s short.
You may never have heard of John Hammond. But if you’re a music fan or a civil rights supporter, you know he’s a major figure of the 20th century. Radiolab, the WNYC program, did a show this week titled “The Power of Music” and almost half of it was devoted to the work of Hammond, the civil rights activist and A&R executive (artists and repertoire or talent scout) for Columbia Records. During the course of his long career, Hammond, who came from a wealthy family (he had a Vanderbilt in his past), discovered and launched the careers of musicians like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. And dozens more.
Hammond was instrumental in bringing the music of African-American performers out of the “race music” ghetto they languished in for decades. Early in his career, he organized the first Carnegie Hall concert to feature black musicians—in December 1938. One of the musicians he wanted to feature was Robert Johnson, the legendary backwoods Mississippi blues master. When he learned that Johnson had died recently, he played some of his music by hooking up a turntable to the Carnegie Hall sound system. The Radiolab segment titled “Letting the Devil Tune Your Guitar” explores the legend about Hammond and Robert Johnson and the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a great guitarist. Radiolab comes to the spooky conclusion that there might have been more than one Robert Johnson. It’s a compelling piece of radio.
Robert Johnson died at 27 in about 1938 (or 1939 or 1941). His music inspired musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influencer at its first induction in 1986. He’s often credited as the songwriter of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
This weekend I watched an old documentary about that New Jersey musician who Hammond signed to Columbia in 1972. Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was made in 1995 when the band got together in a studio in New York to record a Greatest Hits album. Seeing the band 20 years younger was a visual shock. Their current personas are indelibly imprinted on my brain because I saw them so many times during recent tours. Today, yes, they’re older, grayer, balder, but they seem to be more fit and energized. Many of the band members in ’95 look a little pudgy and scruffy. Even Bruce, who today looks trim, even skinny, in tight black jeans, was a bit fleshy. And the beards make a huge difference. At first I didn’t recognize some of the band members under their hirsuteness. Garry Tallent, the bass player, and Roy Bittan, the pianist, looked very different. And so did Bruce.
The reunion was the first time the band had played together in 11 years and you could see how happy and excited they were to be together again. The power of music took them to great heights in recording the 18 songs for the album. The film shows the effort and creativity involved in getting the album made. Producer Chuck Plotkin and manager Jon Landau work closely together. Bruce is rewriting lyrics on a yellow pad and taking votes for the photo on the CD cover. Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg are writing lyrics or notations or arrangements, as they’re getting ready to record.
The songs “Blood Brothers,” “Secret Garden,” “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land” are some of the new tracks on that album. The film shows each of them being worked out with instrumentation changing until Bruce, the perfectionist, is satisfied. The final section shows the music video of “Murder” (directed by Jonathan Demme) being filmed in front of an audience of fans at Tramps in New York.
If you’re interested in learning more about John Hammond, there are several biographies. This book by Dunstan Prial looks like a good choice and I’m going to read it soon. For more info on Robert Johnson, I recommend Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.
It’s spring! I knew that for sure today when I decided to get the salt washed off the Beetle and had to wait in line around the block from Bert’s Car Wash on Grand Avenue. It’s a beautiful day and I didn’t mind sitting in the car, listening to a Springsteen album. And now the Beetle is clean. (Of course, to be realistic, it could snow again. And again.)
Despite the weather, I’ve reviewed some excellent plays recently, two of them of classic origin. And I’ve spent time mulling over a remarkable 1949 film, The Third Man. Here’s a recap.
Endgame at The Hypocrites
Samuel Beckett’s midcentury play, Endgame, is said to represent the theater of the absurd. And it is absurd. Non-linear, plotless. Very funny in a black humor sort of way. The Hypocrites do a great job of staging it so that the dialog gains meaning and connects to our circumstances today. Here’s how I ended my Gapers Block review:
The 90-minute play is skillfully directed by Halena Kays, carefully following Beckett’s stage directions–to which the playwright demanded full compliance. The performances by all four actors are superb. The festive cabaret atmosphere of the venue makes the black absurdity of the play more profound.
You can see Endgame at The Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through April 4.
Antigonick at Sideshow Theatre Company
Non-classic or neo-classic? Anne Carson’s contemporary translation or reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone is witty and the casting is gender-bending. The way double casting is used brings fresh insights to the age-old story of Antigone, her two slain brothers, and King Kreon’s refusal to allow proper burial rites for one of them. Antigone’s opposition to that ruling is dramatized by the words of the Chorus and of Teiresias, the blind prophet. When she tries to get her sister Ismene to help, Ismene reminds her of the tragic family history.
“Wherever we are, think, Sister — father’s daughter. Daughter’s brother. Sister’s mother. Mother’s son. His mother and his wife were one. Our family is double, triple degraded and dirty in every direction. Moreover, we two are alone and we are girls. Girls cannot force their way against men.” And Antigone responds, “Yet I will.”
And the 75-minute production is timed and measured by Nick, a servant who is busy on stage—but wordless—throughout the play.
Staging and performances are excellent in Sideshow’s interpretation of a classic story. You can see it at the Victory Gardens’ upstairs studio theater through April 5. See my review for details.
The Third Man, preferably on a big screen
Carol Reed’s The Third Man is set in Vienna just after the end of World War II. Many critics have called it one of the greatest films ever made and, after watching it half a dozen times recently, and considering all the ingredients that make up a masterpiece, I agree.
The film is noteworthy for its stars—Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. The plot and characterizations are fascinating but the element that makes it a masterpiece, in my mind, is the black-and-white cinematography and the night-time exteriors of war-torn Vienna. The film is simply gorgeous and I urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible. Do not watch it on your phone! I have a friend who has an eight-foot screen in his living room and that was the best screening I can imagine, short of seeing it on a big screen at an arthouse.
The theme of Chicago Literati‘s current issue is “Cinematique: The Movie Issue.” I submitted an essay on The Third Man, which you can now see on the magazine’s site. I’ll bet that even if you don’t remember the film, you’ll remember the zither music.
It’s Oscar time. Love the art, if not the artist. The best films of 2014, according to me, and why it doesn’t matter if you like the character or not.
Foreign films including one featuring The Talking Heads. (Yes, one of my favorite bands.)
A classic play on screen: Ibsen’s The Master Builder translated brilliantly.